Voters Thabo Molale and his mother, Lizzie Molale, centre, wait in line for the gate to open to get ballot papers at the voting station in Dobsonville, Soweto. Far from being a limitation on citizens’ right to vote, the establishment and maintenance of the voters roll is a fundamental safeguard for free and fair elections, says the writer.Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla
Since March 2016, the Electoral Commission has been on a mission to update the voters roll with addresses. Chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo explains the background and critical importance of this project.

As with modern democracies, South Africa will conduct elections for its Parliament and provincial legislatures next year. In terms of the constitution, these elections are mandated to take place within 90 days of the expiry of the present legislative bodies in May 2019.

One of the core aspects of free and fair elections is the establishment and maintenance of an accurate voters roll.

The voters roll was first established in late 1998 and early 1999 ahead of the 1999 national and provincial elections. Over a series of three weekends, the Electoral Commission opened voting stations around the country to allow eligible citizens to register as voters. The result was the first national common voters roll contemplated in the constitution, which comprised 18.17million voters.

This voters roll has been constantly updated ever since, adding new voters as they become eligible and register, and reducing on account of mortality. It is, therefore, a living organism capable of growth, particularly in the periods leading to general elections, and it reduces in non-heightened electoral periods.

As South Africa’s population has grown, so too has the voters’ roll - increasing to 20.67million in 2004, 23.18million in 2009, 25.39million in 2014 and 26.33million in 2016.

Far from being a limitation on citizens’ right to vote, the establishment and maintenance of the voters roll is a fundamental safeguard for free and fair elections. Indeed, it is a national instrument for facilitating electoral participation as a tool at the disposal of political parties for campaign purposes. On the other hand, it serves a fundamental purpose as a planning tool for accurate provision of electoral material as well as the avoidance of electoral fraud.

According to the Ace Electoral Knowledge Network, “by confirming that voters have met all eligibility requirements, the voters list helps confer legitimacy on the electoral process Conversely, the legitimacy of the process will imme- diately be called into question if there are problems with the registration of voters, and particularly with the integrity of the voters list”.

This position has been strongly upheld by the Constitutional Court which in NNP v Government of RSA and Others (1999), found that the right to free and fair elections had implications for the exercising of the right to vote - by ensuring that every eligible voter votes only once and that only eligible voters participate. This, the court found, was ensured through an accurate and up-to-date voters roll.

But enlisting voters on the roll is only the first step in building a foundation of legitimacy for elections. In terms of our electoral scheme, a second key step is ensuring voters are registered in the correct voting district where they ordinarily reside. The functional value of this legal prescript is that voters vote only in elections in which they are eligible - and that those outside the affected voting district do not vote.

This requirement was eloquently articulated by the Concourt in 2016 in the landmark ruling in the matter Electoral Commission v Mhlope and Others. The court held that part of the Electoral Commission’s constitutional obligations was to ensure voters were registered in the correct voting district segment of the roll.

To facilitate this, the Electoral Commission was required to obtain addresses for all voters or, where conventional addresses were not available, “sufficient particularities” of a voter’s ordinary place of residence which permits registration in correct voting district segments.

Since March 2016, the Electoral Commission has been on a mission to update the voters roll with all available addresses or such sufficient particularities of a voter’s ordinary place of residence to fulfil its constitutional obligations and to meet the June 2018 deadline imposed by the court.

Considerable progress has been made. At the time, there were more than 8million voters without addresses on the voters roll. Now, there are only 2.8million. And there were over 8million voters with partial or generic addresses and we have reduced this to 3.5million.

These results are a consequence of a plethora of initiatives. The commission improved its address data management procedures across all spheres of operation and had an address capture exercise on election day in August 2016 where all participating voters for whom we did not have an address were asked to provide one.

An electronic facility for voters with internet access to allow registered voters to check and provide their addresses online has been in operation since October 2017. And we have embarked on fieldwork and outreach initiatives to try to reach out to voters face-to-face.

The collaboration with the interministerial task team on elections has also benefited the endeavour to collect addresses for the voters roll.

But all the low-hanging fruit has now been harvested.

The final 2.8million missing addresses are proving the hardest to find. Many of these voters are in informal settlements and rural areas where residences do not conform to conventional address templates. Many of these voters may have moved since they registered. Many do not have access to the internet.

Many may not even know that we do not have an address on record for them.

That is why we are opening all our voting stations on March 10-11 and are urging all voters to visit and check their details and, where necessary, provide correct address or location information.

And we want all newly eligible voters to use the opportunity to register so they can participate in our democracy.

An up-to-date, comprehensive and complete voters roll is the bedrock for electoral integrity and a free and fair election. But we need help to achieve this.

Only with the support and participation of all voters - along with the involvement and co-operation of political parties, civil society organisations, the media and all other stakeholders - can we make sure our voters roll is ready and provides a trustworthy foundation for free, fair and credible elections in 2019 and beyond.

Visit your voting station between 8am and 5pm on March 10-11 and let’s address the voters roll together.

The Star